How Cynicism is Killing Entertainment

Cujo: "Jaws" With Paws

1983 saw the Stephen King craze in full swing and Hollywood was buying up whatever it could get its hands on to adapt in motion pictures. So when it came around to Cujo, the bottom of the barrel seemed to be showing. All of King's major titles were optioned or already made into films with varying degrees of success. Most King fans will agree that up to that point, Carrie, The Shining and The Dead Zone were the best of Hollywood's attempts to bring King's unique vision to the screen.
Cujo is a killer dog movie. The premise was tough for even King to write about, but he pulled it off, giving genuine sympathy to the rabid St. Bernard and populating his story with solid characters and a thin connection to The Dead Zone as well as adding to his whole Castle Rock story theme. As a film, the whole thing couldn't work, as in the final analysis, it's just a dog. A big dog yes, but still only a dog...puppy power be damned.
Cujo in better days before he got the ick.
This is where a good filmmaker can fight Cynema and director Lewis Teague and screenwriter, Lauren Currier created one of the most underrated and overlooked King adaptations. Cujo is brilliant. It could have been the Jaws the Revenge of killer dog films, but instead is Jaws with Paws. Teague ( Romancing the Stone) gives us a solid film, with tight action, grueling suspense and scenes of absolute, raw terror. Cujo is a horror film in every aspect of the genre.
And it's a damned good one.

The culprit that starts it all...a fuzzy bunny that leads Cujo to a den of rabies plagued bats.


Cujo is also a tragedy. The dog is tragic, the families involved are tragic and the overall theme is tragic. Dee Wallace Stone puts in one of the best performances of her career as Donna Trenton, the cheating wife of Daniel Hugh Kelly's Vic Trenton.


I am sincere in saying that Wallace deserved at least an Oscar nomination for this film, and was robbed.


Dee was known as the "80's mom" having played the ultimate mom role in Spielberg's ET: The Extraterrestrial. She was offered dozens of similar roles, but follows up the wholesome performance as a flawed mother who literally must fight for her son's life against the crazed St. Bernard. It was a gutsy move on her part, and she picked a winner of a film to do it with. Her performance is nothing short of brilliant and when her terrified son begs repeatedly to see his father while trapped in the sweltering Pinto by Cujo, we feel Wallce's torment, regret and terror when she screams: "All right I'll get your daddy!" It is a defining moment in the film.


Charles Bernstein's musical score only reinforces the tragedy of this story, as it opens with a sense of wonder and innocence then slowly devolves into a horrifying soundtrack that still belies the sadness of it all. Much like the disease that eats at Cujo's brain.


Dee Wallace Stone as Donna Trenton in a lobby card for Warner Brother's 1983 classic, Cujo


Teague picked one of the best editors in Hollywood to ensure that the number of special effects and live animal action were stitched together seamlessly. As Verna Fields was the unsung hero of Spielberg's Jaws, Neil Travis cut Jaws 2 and it was his editing that made us believe a shark could sink a helicopter and had us on our seats with the intense top ocean action. Travis did it again with Cujo. Five dogs were used in the film, along with puppets and mechanical St. Bernards to achieve the action needed for the marauding canine on the loose. Travis' editing makes it one complete illusion. The opening sequence alone, with Cujo chasing after a rabbit that leads him to his fate, gives a hint to the quality of what we are about to see.



Taking its lessons from the original Jaws, audiences will buy into anything as long as they believe in the characters and a good story. Lauren Currier's script gives a refreshing female perspective to the story, finding its flawed hero in a woman and building off the protection a mother will sacrifice for their baby. The writing is smart and avoids the soap opera elements of King's novel, much like the script for Jaws did the same with Benchley's cheesy melodrama shark story of the book. We believe in these characters and that goes for Cujo himself.


The trainers of the dogs used in this film deserved an Oscar nomination as well, and in fact should give the Academy food for thought in creating a special category for animal training and performances.


It's that good in this film.


There isn't a bad performance in this film. Danny Pintauro has the hard part of playing the terrorized little boy. Child actors are tough when they have to hold up a horror film. They're either too aggressively cute and you need an insulin shot or see them whacked or they don't give enough and basically stare throughout the whole movie. Pintauro is both adorable and real. He's a cute little boy and he can act. His screeching and terror when the attacks finally come are palpable and his moments in the last 15 minutes of the film make you wonder why this kid never went on to do more stuff and more films. He played a stint on a sitcom in the 80's but never really got out of the decade and that's a shame.

Pintauro screams rightfully so. Billy Jayne as Cujo's boy owner and the Trenton family is a tender moment


The character actors are superb. Cujo's boy owner Brett Camber (played by Billy Jayne) and his family (the always superb Ed Lauter and Kaiulani Lee) are genuine, and because they are so genuine, we are willing to suspend our disbelief that a dog will do the things it does; just as we believed a Great White could do what it did and that an air tank would explode from an impossible 300 yard shot. We believe because of the characters and this is a testament to Lauren Currier's screenplay.


Lauter and Lee and Joe and Charity Camber. Two of the best character actors around.


This is a horror film. Once Wallace is stuck in that tin deathtrap of a Pinto, the terror never lets up. As the heat rises and death by dehydration and heat stroke become reality, Wallace knows she will have to face down the dog that stands between her son's survival. We know it's coming and the payoff is fantastic. However a reason for the film's middling box office most likely rests on the fact that the dog's terror is almost too real. Cujo is suffering. He is dying of a maddening disease not of his own fault. Therefore as horrible as the dog is, he is a victim. There are so  many touching moments and there is no doubt the Old Yeller factor comes into play.


Cujo must die--not only because he has become a vicious killer, but to put him out of his misery. He was a good dog.


Sit. Good dog.


Lewis Teague and this crew of filmmakers broke the curse of Cynema. They could have made a dumb, bloodfest of a film. Instead they give us a strong story, excellent characters and a tragic monster in the titular Cujo. This is smart filmmaking and smart horror. Unfortunately this kind of horror gets overlooked and lesser quality King adaptations went on to make far bigger money.  For awhile it seemed that King was getting a bum rap in the business, as most of his films fell short of fan expectations. Even the cult hit, The Shining was rejected by King himself and is a mixed bag that time has been very kind to.


Things have changed a little bit for King's film adaptations. Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist and even the mini series translations of The Stand and IT helped restore some of the luster after misfires like Sleepwalkers, Dreamcatcher, The Tommy Knockers and a trove of lesser short story manglings.


Cujo works. If you are a true fan of horror, it should be experienced for it is one of the superior translations of King's work and it is fine craftsmanship and filmmaking.


Adopt Cujo...I triple dog dare you.


























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